“Those with no horizons”

This is my review of The Miniaturist: TV Tie-In Edition by Jessie Burton.

Of good birth but penniless, eighteen-year-old Nella travels from the countryside to join her new husband, the wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, the story has overtones of “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” and Nella’s brittle sister-in-law Marin is at first reminiscent of Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers. Yet there is originality in Johannes’ odd wedding gift, a nine-roomed cabinet house modelled on his own. To fill this with figures and objects, Nella hires the services of an elusive miniaturist, who uses an implausible and unsettling knowledge of the house’s occupants not merely to reflect their current lives but to manipulate or foretell the future.

It does not matter that the secrets of the Brandt’s household are to varying degrees guessable from the outset. The story was intriguing and a page turner for me until two aspects made me wish I had never embarked on it: the style and the portrayal of the miniaturist.

Jessie Burton writes in in a great flood of imaginative vigour which can produce striking descriptions and vivid impressions of C17 Amsterdam. However, I began to feel exhausted from the battering of the gushing, overblown and it would seem unedited prose: “Nella’s bones are falling through her body as if she’s going to slide into her husband’s rug and never stand again” What will she do when something really bad happens? Or here’s a description of a pregnant woman: “Behind the walls of ……’s anchored body a baby tumbles, possessed and possessor, its unmet mother a god to it”. In what is being hailed as a feminist novel, it could at least be a “goddess”.

The whiff of the occult associated with the miniaturist’s ability to know, often in advance, what is afoot in the Brandt household, remains confused and sketchy to the end, detracting from a plot complex enough not to need this aspect, which turns out to be a bit of an authorial cop-out.

There are also some annoying little “continuity errors” as when a boy’s head appears round a door which has just been closed very explicitly.

This book has been strongly hyped and will please many readers, but I regret the opportunity missed to produce a really powerful literary historical novel on the theme of the position of women in one of the burgeoning capitalist world’s commercial capitals, of the hypocrisy of its respectable citizens and the effect of travel in opening the minds of men like Johannes who were so misunderstood by their peers. If you find my criticisms unfair, read for comparison the historical novel “Pure” by Andrew Miller.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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